So I arrived back home late last night from my second missions trip to the great island and U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Upon returning, I feel an urge to write a small reflection on my overall experience during my week there. While it would be impossible to record an exhaustive account that completely portrays all the events, emotions and experiences that can encompasses a trip like this, I have attempted here to provide five brief reflections that provide you with a good overall perception of the great spiritual benefits of these types of trips.
1. Travel Cures Ignorance
It's way too easy for us as Americans to view the world through our American lenses. There are an abundance of things that we have access to and the privilege to possess that we assume the rest of the world could and should have them as well. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple. We also have a tendency to view our way of life as the way life ought to be lived and assume the rest of the world should strive toward that end. Surprisingly, we would find that we have much to gain and learn from other people and other cultures rather than just our own.
Keep in mind, I'm talking about a trip to a U.S. territory full of American influence and culture. Even there, we can gain an enlightening experience of a broader worldview that alters (in a good way) the way in which we view our lives here at home.
2. It's Better the Second Time Around
This was my first trip in which I was returning to serve with and among people that I had already visited before. I was surprised and extremely encouraged by the depth of relationship that had developed from my first visit. I would have missed this depth of relationship entirely if I had never returned to Puerto Rico for the second time. I would obviously encourage everyone to make every effort to participate in short-term missions trips, but I would encourage you even more to regularly return to the people and places where you've previously served.
3. Faith Family Extends Bloodlines and Borders
Connecting with people from other countries and cultures who share the common faith in Christ opens up our eyes to see more of God's beauty and grace displayed differently than we're used to seeing Him. And not only that, but I was so moved emotionally at the brotherhood that exists among the professional baseball community. Former and current players connecting as brothers in the game and also as brothers in Christ is an astonishing display of love and Christian community that powerfully portrays the aspects of Biblical Christian community and what is meant by the church body. Men connected so intimately in this way who join together to serve Christ by serving communities can shake the foundations of this world.
4. The Privilege to Serve Rather than the Pressure to Save
Time and space doesn't permit me to share everything I'd like to share in regards to this concept, but I think I'm starting to understand how to best approach my brief time in other cultures among other people. There seems to be a common error that many make in their approach to short-term missions. It's the idea that "We're going to save the people of Puerto Rico." Although I agree with the idea, I disagree with this being our focus and motivation. I'll attempt to explain even though a longer conversation would provide more clarity.
Typically, one of the main things we do on these trips is provide a free baseball clinic for whoever wants to participate. In doing so, we offer one to two hours of solid professional instruction before sharing our testimonies and the gospel with the crowds afterwards. If I approach these clinics feeling the pressure to save the people that participate, then I'm likely to perform the old 'bait-and-switch' technique where I've offered a free service in order to lure you in with an alternative agenda. This runs the risk of coming across awkward and insincere. However, if I approach these clinics simply as a privileged opportunity to serve Christ by serving people, then I'm offering a free service with no strings attached. I'm extending grace. I'm freely giving you a gift and not looking to get anything from you in return.
So what about proclaiming the gospel?
It's really not that difficult. Professional baseball players have left their families and their country to come to this obscure town in the middle of nowhere to provide a free baseball clinic for whoever wants to come? It begs the question, "Why would you do something like this?" And that is where I simply share with the crowds why I'm doing what I'm doing. It's natural and completely sincere, and what I believe to be the appropriate role for the short-term missionary.
5. Embrace 'Plan D'
"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (Psalm 16).
If there's one thing this last trip to Puerto Rico confirmed in my approach to short-term missions, it's this truth. It is right, appropriate and beneficial to have a plan, but in doing so, we better be willing to hand that plan over to God for any alterations and edits He'd like to make. If we're simply there to serve then this won't be an issue for us. If we approach the trip with specific expectations and a set agenda then alterations to our plan can be discouraging and disheartening. We can have a plan, a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan, but we must be willing to embrace 'Plan D' which might be God's plan.
We experienced 'Plan D' in a couple powerful ways over the course of this last trip. The first was a clinic in a rough area of town that failed to work itself out. However, we took this opportunity to play basketball and dodgeball with the kids from this neighborhood and shared our testimonies with them and some of their parents afterwards. It was a joy to play with these kids, and in doing so, we seemed to have earned the right to be heard as they were very attentive during our time of sharing.
The next day, we had a clinic that was rained out and therefore found ourselves with some extra time on our hands. We decided to drive a couple hours out of our typical route home in order to visit with a former player who had served with us the year before. He was suffering from some fairly severe health issues and was discouraged that he wouldn't have the opportunity to hang out with us this year because of his inability to leave his home. The rain out gave us the opportunity to visit with him, and the joy that came from that visit is inexpressible. It was one of those moments that you know God orchestrated and wanted to happen. It was a Divine appointment, and one that encouraged all of us greatly.
In conclusion, I know that I still have a lot to learn in regards to short-term missions, but I am learning. I'm thankful for my time in Puerto Rico and thankful for all the wonderful men and women that I had the privilege to serve with over the course of this past week. These are events in life that shape the character of a man, and I pray that with each experience, God continues to mold and conform me into the image of His Son. May God be glorified in all things, and may we all find our place in participating to share His gospel with all nations and with all people.